The Wholly Catholic Church?

Poped out?

Poped out? After the nonstop media barrage that covered every conceivable angle both of that little chimney on the Sistine Chapel and of the papal transition - and after the invasion of the airwaves by an endless parade of Catholic talking heads, holding forth from St. Peter’s Square as well as on the front steps of Our Lady of Perpetual Chatter down the street - not a few Americans seem glad to see the new Pope Benedict XVI settling in and the news crews moving on.

You would expect Protestants in particular to have been annoyed and fed up with the whole media spectacle - after all, the "protest" against Rome and the pope is part of their name and identity. But as a Catholic who married into a staunch, albeit ecumenically minded, Lutheran family and who worships in both Catholic and Lutheran churches, I was struck by the genuine interest in and concern among many Protestants for who was going to be sitting in Peter’s chair and what his election would mean.

At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, Illinois, prayers for the Catholic Church, for the departed pope, for the guidance of the Spirit during the conclave, and for the new pope figured prominently in the Prayers of the Faithful during the weeks of the papal interregnum - as I’m sure they did in countless other Protestant congregations. And when I attended the Associated Church Press convention in Nashville the week after Pope Benedict XVI’s election, the conversations with fellow editors from Protestant publications always seemed to come around to what had transpired in Rome and what it would mean for the future of the Catholic Church and for ecumenism.

Clearly much has changed over the past half-century in the Catholic Church’s relationships with other Christian churches. Since Vatican II (1962-65) inaugurated a new era, the ecumenical movement has made significant progress, and the office of the papacy itself has taken on ecumenical dimensions that were inconceivable 50 years ago.

And for many people today there is no other symbol or reality that even comes close to embodying the essential call to Christian unity the way the bishop of Rome does - his many shortcomings notwithstanding. Clearly this also places a special obligation on the pope to exercise his ministry in a way that fosters and does not hinder that unity.

WHAT THEN CAN Protestants expect from the new pope? Initially, many Protestant leaders - just as many Catholic liberals and progressives - have been skeptical and wary of where the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be leading the world’s largest church community. After all, in a document his congregation authored five years ago the then-enforcer of Catholic doctrinal correctness seemed to be denigrating Protestant denominations as "not churches in the proper sense."

Yet in the days immediately following his election, Pope Benedict XVI took special care to send conciliatory messages to non-Catholic churches assuring them that ecumenism will be a top priority in his papacy and showing an awareness of the responsibility his office holds for promoting Christian unity. A German theologian I interviewed for U.S. Catholic magazine thinks ecumenism might be one area where Benedict could surprise people by searching out new ways to move forward.

The election of Pope Benedict XVI seems to signal above all a vote for continuity with the agenda of his predecessor. Many Catholics have been hoping and working for significant church reforms such as the ordination of women and married priests; greater openness, accountability, and lay participation and decision-making in their church; a greater acknowledgment of pastoral realities and of the sense of the faithful in moral theological teachings; and more local or regional authority that would allow for greater diversity in unity. Given that Pope Benedict has been so clearly identified with the more conservative wing of the Catholic Church, those kinds of reforms will no doubt have to wait for another papacy.

But that should not stop Protestants from engaging the new pope and their Catholic brothers and sisters in working for further ecumenical progress and from continuing and intensifying our joint advocacy and ministry of peace and social justice on the global and local level.

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds is executive editor of U.S. Catholic magazine.

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